Broadway School by Cottrell & Vermeulen Architecture
A pragmatic yet innovative approach to a school refurbishment in Birmingham points towards the future of educational institutions in these straitened times
Writing in 1873, Edward Robert Robson, the architect on the London School Board, stated: “In endeavouring to give fitting architectural character and expression to the board schools of London, it is not necessary, because of the non-dogmatic character of their instruction, to abandon all indigenous architecture and to seek something wholly new or ‘original’ … It is therefore of some interest to consider from which source we may chiefly derive our school architecture.”
The school board subsequently built more than 400 schools in the Queen Anne style, leaving a lasting legacy of brick and terracotta schools in London, which reflects the paternalistic, civic generosity of Victorian public building.
A century later, in the UK’s second most populous city, Birmingham, the Building Schools for the Future (BSF) programme had similar scope and ambitions. Catalyst, the public-private partnership between Birmingham City Council and Lend Lease, committed to spend £2.4 billion on 89 new and redeveloped secondary schools over a 15-year period.
Broadway School, designed by Cottrell & Vermeulen Architects, offers one argument that it might have. At first glance, the school has little in common with its Victorian predecessors, but, by giving architectural character to the multi-ethnic institution it houses, it continues the tradition of formally relevant public buildings that serve the needs of a community.
The school was one of three sample schools initiated in 2009. Since 70% of Birmingham’s proposed school projects were to be redevelopments of existing buildings, Broadway was chosen as a prototype to test the strategies for refurbishment — a dramatic contrast to most BSF programmes, in which sample schemes tended to focus on the more politically potent new-builds.
Sited three miles north of Birmingham’s centre, in the suburb of Perry Barr, the school sits in the familiar British sprawl of Victorian terraces and inter-war semi-detached homes, inhabited by a predominantly Muslim community of first and second-generation Pakistanis and Bangladeshis. Less than a mile west of Spaghetti Junction, it provides frequent illustrations of the disjunctions between intimate spaces of family life and the big infrastructure and big box sheds of modernity.
Turning into the Broadway, the street in front of the school, one is met by a newly raised, paved “home zone”. On the left there is a line of occupied, brick semi-detached homes with pitched roofs; on the right is the school’s street facade, with a cranked line of polycarbonate porticos, their pitches stretched to mirror the semis opposite. Shifting in scale and colour, with the school’s name within it, the facade complements the scale and character of the existing street, mediating between the residential elements and the three-storey school building.
It was James Gowan who first coined the axiom “the style for the job” and, here, Cottrell & Vermeulen have got it exactly right with a “cineplex civic” style that renders the forms of the neighbouring semis in the materials of the nearby big boxes.
The use of distinct forms, precise detailing and well-considered communicative elements give an economical palette of Kingspan and polycarbonate a sense of worth beyond its budget. The resulting building shares a looseness and economy of means with the work of Lacaton & Vassal, although the facade’s detailing gives it a taut robustness more attuned to the demands of a north European climate.
Entering the glazed doors under the polycarbonate portico is a surprisingly intimate affair — an unusual experience for a secondary school with 1,200 pupils. The doors lead onto an external courtyard, protected from the elements by a double-height, simple steel-framed canopy. Part Roman atrium, part decompression chamber, the canopy’s height above adjacent walls gives a spatial generosity, while the light through the GRP appears to glow brighter than the grey sky I saw it against.
To the left of this courtyard, two double doors spill into the main hall and, ahead, a line of glazed doors lead into the new build, triple-height space that forms the centre of the redeveloped school. Known as the “Knowledge Exchange” (the architect’s label has stuck), it is a cavernous atrium in the contemporary sense and provides light and height at the centre of the plan. Externally, this Bart Simpson of a shed reads from the school’s play spaces as the cheeky yellow heart of the school. An ascending sawtooth roof gives it a dramatic profile and ensures the space is well lit by east facing rooflights. The roof and walls are solid down to the second storey, providing a strong sense of enclosure. This gives way to a storey of translucent polycarbonate cladding above glazed doors opening to the playground beyond.
In describing its genesis, Richard Cottrell notes that the Knowledge Exchange is exactly the type of space that the practice generally believes is inappropriate for learning environments, as they prefer more intimate, adaptable and welcoming communal spaces. He refers to their “journey of acceptance”, as the design developed from a low-roofed room into a three-storey hall. The original budget did not allow for enough new build to meet the guidelines of the Department for Education’s building bulletin 98. Cottrell & Vermeulen won the project by showing that the Exchange’s reduction of circulation could make the scheme affordable.
The collection of steel and concrete-framed buildings were connected by a simple, large sheltering enclosure rather than smaller connecting links. Despite this pragmatism, Cottrell was nervous about the space — “we thought, this can’t be right” — but an expansive social condenser matched the new headteacher’s ambitions perfectly.
The redeveloped buildings united a school community previously split over two sites, yet the single site did not include a space in which all the pupils could easily assemble. The new circulation means every pupil has to pass through the Exchange, which opens directly onto the dining hall, library and the corridors to the teaching spaces.
It is expansive, but the tsunami of pupils I witnessed flowing through the Exchange at break time was still an intense experience. What an 11-year-old would make of it on their first day, arriving from a small primary school, I don’t know, but the head is convinced it contributes to the pupils’ sense of pride in the school and what Ofsted labelled its improved “outstanding ethos”.
Leading off the Exchange at ground and first-floor level are colour-coded corridors to the main learning rooms, most of which are remodelled within the existing buildings. As Cottrell notes, “it is usually a good decision to reuse any big building” and with 70% of the UK’s school estate more than 25 years old, the combination of new, remodelled and refurbished spaces seen at Broadway is likely to become the norm for future schools in these austere times.
Reuse has clear benefits, in terms of embodied energy, but adds complications and complexity. The variety of classroom types and characters ensures Broadway feels evolved and mature. Many of the classrooms are spatially generous, with abundant daylight (several are double aspect) and natural ventilation, courtesy of new windows in the existing envelope.
Exposing concrete soffits in a limited number of classrooms adds height and character and other classrooms look new after little more than a lick of paint. A few classrooms seem to have come out badly of the remodelling jigsaw puzzle, with deep plans and few windows, but some teachers’ choice to reduce the available light further by drawing blinds suggests they may not share my concerns.
Any refurbishment that extends beyond mere decoration is likely to involve the provision of significant new services and Broadway is no exception. The mechanical servicing suggested by contemporary statutory regulation, approved guidance and compliant service engineers, coupled with the complexities of the fabric, led to the installation of a suspended ceiling in most of the corridors and teaching spaces. Ubiquitous and institutional, it reduces the height of the corridors — sometimes below the client’s desired minimum of 2.6m — and removes the benefits of the existing concrete soffit’s thermal mass and visual impact.
It is interesting to note that, while Broadway was being completed, the first free schools were encouraging designers to rethink servicing from first principles, challenging statutory requirements to ensure future refurbishment projects are more sustainable and economical with less material impact.
In an attempt to “transform the way students learnt” Sylvia McNamara, the director of Birmingham’s BSF, proposed a specific pedagogical model based upon flexible clusters. Consequently, each corridor leads to a classroom-sized “social learning zone” surrounded by foldable partitions, with the potential to open up to adjacent classrooms for extended learning. The best of these spaces are naturally top-lit with easily moveable furniture, encouraging a different learning environment; the worst lack any natural light or views out, with fixed, inappropriate furniture that almost prevents inhabitation. The facilities management has further limited the flexibility of the spaces by requiring teachers to ask site managers to operate the easily openable partitions, effectively preventing their daily use.
The combination of new and refurbished spaces are likely to become the norm for future schools in these austere times
Shortly before financial completion, an investment of an additional 16% funding from Aston Pride, the local New Deal Partnership, allowed the buildings to incorporate a youth centre and a local police centre. Sharing toilets and a kitchen, with a policeman on the school’s governors board, this unique arrangement contributes to the school’s integration with the local community.
Community use continues through Pentecostal services in the hall, a coffee shop in the Exchange and round-the-clock use of the sports facilities. The additional funding also allowed the architect to layer the school’s interior with a decorative appliqué, including the colouration of the Exchange’s acoustic panels, a liberal smattering of staff-selected texts and supergraphics and the student-designed patterns on the external Trespa cladding and internal wood linings. The grain and narrative this provides synthesises the collage of buildings into a coherent institution. If only all public buildings could benefit from a similar injection of locally sourced funds.
This year’s Ofsted report noted the rapid improvement of the school’s academic performance in the past three years, citing the outstanding contribution by new headteacher Ron Skelton. The improvements began to register in 2009, the year the school decanted into temporary accommodation, suggesting a subtle interplay between attainment, leadership and environment.
The occupation of the building since February 2011 has been accompanied by further improvements. While in 2009 the school’s parents’ evenings rarely drew more than three or four parents, the evening before my visit enjoyed a 98% parent attendance. Such enhanced engagement suggests Cottrell & Vermeulen’s welcoming, useful and suburban-sourced building will have a lasting contribution to the success of this school community.
Architect Cottrell & Vermeulen Architecture, Client Birmingham City Council, Contractor Lend Lease, Structural, services & acoustic engineer Arup, Graphic design & wayfinding BCMH, Landscape design Fira, Community artists Cantoo
Geoff Shearcroft is a founding director of AOC.